Under Eden’s Spell

Alexis de Tocqueville (center), flanked by his famous book (right) and Tocqueville in Arabia (left).

I do not think my students understand Christianity…. Many (students in class) are denominationally Roman Catholic. Some are Protestant. While childhood years spent in pews watching the liturgy or undergoing initiation rites of one sort or another certainly prepared them to recite creedal statements about their faith, few knew of “labor and sorrow” or of “lifelong warfare”. They are still under Eden’s spell. They are decades away from the frail thoughts of old age and the betrayal of their bodies, from the breathtaking realization that from dust they come and to dust they go. Under Eden’s spell they cannot know that. Under Eden’s spell, they cannot understand Christianity.

— Joshua Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia, 2013.1

One of the most remarkable things about my students on the main campus is how they ‘herd’ together in groups, rather than break apart, publically, into couples…. My students have been taught that there are no natural differences between men and women around which durable roles can be formed.

— Joshua Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia.2

I.
Joshua Mitchell was a colleague and friend of mine in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. The year I left for California, Mitchell published a book entitled Tocqueville in Arabia. Somehow, I had missed reading it, but recently my friends, Anne and Bill Burleigh, sent me a copy. They said: “Read it!” I sat down and read it right away. This book is remarkable in many ways. It is a non-academic academic book. That is, it reads much like a novel or adventure story, but it contains all the erudition that anyone would ever want to know about the vast scholarship that Mitchell displays so clearly. Moreover, it is tightly argued by an incisive mind that knows the historical and philosophical issues at stake in dealing with the modern mind, student or otherwise.

The book is a reflection on Tocqueville’s profound 1832 book, Democracy in America. Tocqueville seems, at first, oddly out of place in Arabia. But that is the point of the book. He is out of place there. The question is: Why has he not been known in Arabia? This is what the book sets out to explain. Tocqueville in Arabia is also an education book, a philosophy book, a history book, a theology book, a political theory book, a current events book, and something of an autobiography, as well as a commentary on Plato and Aristotle.

In light of Mitchell’s interest in Arab education—he mentions the American Academes in Beirut and Cairo—the book recalled earlier efforts by Jesuit provinces to establish colleges in the Middle East, one of the most difficult and dangerous of all missionary areas in the world, especially for Christians. Muslims in general are more interested in converting the missionary to Islam than themselves to convert to Christianity—often worth their lives if they so do. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries, French, British, or Italians occupied near-eastern Muslim lands. In earlier centuries, these same areas themselves were ruled as a consequence of Muslim conquests of Christian lands. Even earlier, these lands had fallen under Roman or Greek control.

The newly-formed and largely artificial Muslim states allowed these Jesuit colleges to begin, though often with severe restrictions. The Collège de la Sainte Famille (where I once visited) was established by the French Jesuits in Cairo in 1870, with roots going back to the 1820s. The University of St. Joseph in Beirut was founded also by the French Jesuits in 1870. Finally, Bagdad College was opened by the New England Jesuits in 1932 until finally the Jesuits were expelled in 1969.

Mitchell’s concern was to establish in some part of the Arab world a university that was free to teach the truth of the great tradition that includes the classics and medieval tradition, while dealing, at the same time, with the local culture in comparison with norms found in Tocqueville. Tocqueville’s French origins make this attention to Democracy in America especially feasible in a Middle East that bears much French influence. A recurrent theme throughout the book deals with the origin and status of modern nation-states on which the political forms of Muslim recent states were modeled. The question to be asked was whether they continue to be viable in either the western or Muslim worlds in the light of globalism, and the religious revitalization of Islam, and its expansion into other areas of the world.

Mitchell is uniquely qualified to write this book. His scholarly father was a professor at the University of Michigan back in the 1970s. He was a specialist in Arab issues, which was unusual at the time. As a result, Mitchell spent his early years as a boy in Kuwait, Qatar, and Cairo. Later, during the time we were colleagues at Georgetown, he was often absent. He also taught summer school in Argentina and Portugal. He spent much time involved with setting up an American University in Bagdad, while also teaching in Georgetown’s Foreign Service program in Qatar. Mitchell has always understood the importance of religion in political affairs. But, as a graduate of the University of Chicago, he also knew what a classical liberal education meant. He took what Hobbes and Rousseau said of “civil religion” very seriously, as well as Luther’s views.

 

II.
The title of this reflection, “Under Eden’s Spell,” comes from Mitchell via the famous Garden, usually supposed to have been located in the Near-East, where the whole human drama began. This theme is one that I have also argued in a different way in The Modern Age.3 Basically, the human race, through its own choosing, was removed from the Garden of Eden as a punishment. In Eden, everything that human beings needed, or could wish for, was provided for them. They were not prone to evil even though they were finite and free beings.

On their Fall and exile, however, the first parents confronted a broken world outside of the Garden. Here, quite definite consequences followed from human choices, and human follies, whether they be responsible for all of them, or not. Within the heart even of fallen man, we still find a nagging memory of Eden, of a place where we really belong, but we do not know how to return there. We wonder if perhaps we can, with our ideas and technology, find a way to return to it. We search for it. Much of the impetus of modernity is a version of Christian eschatology, now transformed to a this-worldly project. The spell of Eden, as Mitchell uses the phrase, is nothing less than a reflection or image of a complete, happy, human life brought about by human means alone.

Mitchell’s central theme is that the development of modern philosophy, as it ends up in secular humanism and individualism, still retains this sense that all will be well. That end is what history is progressing towards. We just need to find the right set of ideas, or institutions, to make it so. We think that we deserve such a home on earth. We want to make everyone else happy by our efforts. Happiness comes to be defined as each of us being totally autonomous, with no dependencies. The Christian formula concerning this possibility is not known to most, even to most Catholic students. It is seen by Muslim students, in another form, as the purpose of the Qur’an. It consists in the final world conquest by Islam, after which the whole world is in peace under Sharia law.

We have here, as I indicated, a secularized eschatology (four last things—heaven, hell, death, Purgatory–disguised as a solution to the world’s concern about human destiny. Proposal after proposal has been tried in modern times. All of which have failed. We have, to be sure, reached high levels of prosperity and know-how. But failure to achieve perfection seems almost to goad us further and further into more totalitarian, and absolutist, political consequences. We become desperate to find our own solution to the Eden spell the more our previous efforts fail. The fear is that the Eden quest might be real after all, but requires a different way to reach it, a way already in existence, with the help of revelation, but rejected by those who, so they think, desire their own utopia in preference.

Why cannot the Eden spell be broken even among what appear to be normal Catholic and Protestant students? The real “spell” of Eden, as Mitchell recognizes, is only disrupted by revelation, by transcendence, by our understanding that each man’s completion is not in this world, but it occurs through the redemption, and no way else. If we cannot find Eden in this world, we should stop looking for it there. To continue the search in this world leads to derangement and absolutism. We should return politics, culture, and economics to the limited things that they are in reason, not make ten adjuncts to inner-worldly utopian schemes. The thinking required for a whole reconfiguration of thought and practice is what Mitchell is at pains to account for. In the end, it is the irony of this book that it takes revelation to combat the consequence of a pseudo-eschatology completed in this world.

 

III.
Mitchell begins with what appears at first sight to be a strange experience. He finds in dealing with modern students, whether Christian or not, that they seem peculiarly lonely. The reason for this loneliness centers about the word “delinked,” a word which Mitchell often uses. It describes people who see no necessary connection, or moral relation to each other. To be “de-linked” is to be unchained, to have no horizontal or vertical relations with other men or gods. It may be exhilarating to be floating out there with all power to one’s self. It is not unlike the condition often ascribed to Aristotle’s First Mover, namely, he is lonely because he has no friends. This “no-friends” situation is the worst of human or divine conditions.

I tell “my students that the whole of Democracy in America was written under the aegis of that sentiment (“that it is not good for man to be alone”), under the shadow of what could be called a philosophy of loneliness,” Mitchell writes. “They listen. Tocqueville’s concern, I tell them, was the emergence of a new type: homo solus, the lonely man; and how this new type would understand himself, and his place in the world” (43). What is this modern loneliness about? It is deeper than simply the “lonely” crowd. Mitchell sees it as the logical result of philosophical and moral choices about what man is in this world. He sees it in contrast to Aristotle’s “political animal” or the Church as membership in an organized and coherent whole wherein real people were related to real other particular people with names in a finite, but common good. The lonely man could not find anyone else to love because he did not think he had any linkage to anyone else.

Why, in Mitchell’s view, did modern man, including most modern university students, assume this dis-linkage of themselves from everything else? Largely through a strange combination of faulty epistemology in souls that did not take responsibility for their disordered actions. They came to justify such actions basically through the modern theory of “rights,” something directly contrary to the classical account of virtue and order in nature. Virtue was the endeavor to control ourselves precisely so that we could be joined with others in a harmony that did not put our wants and passions as the primary criterion of our actions. “Rights” concentrate on what is due to the individual for no other reason than he desires it.

The civil society, composed of multitudes of de-linked citizens, is set up to grant and protect these “rights” that enable us to make ourselves into whatever we want. In other words, politically-defined “rights” take the place of the reason found in the natural law of things. But the giver and guarantor of what “rights” we can exercise outside of ourselves is defined by the positive law of the state. The state is checked by nothing higher than itself. These latter “rights” have no foundation other than their willed status as the coercive force that intervenes to prevent the war of all against all.

The loneliness arises from the fact that the theory of individual autonomy and individual control over any truth makes it impossible to communicate with others except on the basis of protecting one’s own rights. Everyone knows that any friendship, the central problem of university-aged students, must be primarily other-oriented. It is a genuine concern for what the other is. But individual autonomy, and the “rights” that flow from it, are closed off from others, except as instruments of one’s own well-being.

 

IV.
A good part of this book is devoted to higher education, to the content of genuine learning, and how to achieve it. Mitchell knows that the best classroom is not a place for power point, and other gadgets. It is a place for a good book, a student, a blackboard, and a teacher. When it comes to the highest things, anything else is superfluous. Students everywhere (this happens in the churches also) also suffer from a short attention span. They lack the leisure, discipline, and incentive to spend hours and hours in reading, in carefully attending to grammar, and in knowing what has been taught. “In America, in Qatar, and around the globe, that (short attention span) is perhaps the single greatest threat to the future of higher education,” Mitchell writes. “A generation enticed and distracted by near constant text messaging will find it difficult to understand that ideas worthy of the name are to be found in larger, more comprehensive amalgams like paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books” (32). We have thus a peculiar combination of a de-linked person who is in contact at all times with many other de-linked persons living somewhere else, anywhere else in the world.

Mitchell is adept at tracing deeds back to ideas and their history. He seeks to establish a middle ground between “re-enchantment” and “revolution” (38). That is to say, the revival of myths of the past, or those of the future, are not worthy of a practical human life that expects to find the ultimate happiness of each person only in this world. What kind of polity, what kind of religion, what kind of economics contribute to a realist appreciation of man’s place in the world is what this book seeks to elaborate (40). This effort involves a choice between 1) orientation of the state or 2) orientation to the neighbor who is known (42). The book constantly reaffirms the centrality of smaller units in which individual persons really know and are “linked” to one another.

“Almost all of my students on the main campus are haunted by the suffering of others and think that the sole purpose of social policy or political action is to eliminate it” (57). This is the image of the abstract individual, with no connection to family, community, or state, wanting to save all humanity, an abstraction, rather than a notion of society, in which real individuals who are free to help the neighbors, and fellow citizens, they know.

Today, increasingly, education has become an occasion, if not a pretext, to nurture the sentiment of universal sympathy that only disembodied man can fully become—hence the deliberate attempt in our public schools to undermine national pride and any other discrete affiliation and the platitudes that make their efforts innocuous: “sharing and caring”; “everyone is special”, et cetera (59).

Mitchell is not against aiding the poor and suffering, but he is concerned when sympathy is simply an abstraction of de-linked man, rather than the concrete relation of actual human beings in their communal relations to each other.

“To dream of infinitely extending sympathy to the point where democratic man takes the suffering of the whole world upon himself, however,” Mitchell observes, “is to imagine powers that he simply does not have. Many of my American students do not understand this…. Very few of my Middle Eastern students…dream of infinitely extending sympathy” (59). At first sight it might appear noble to “feel” everyone else’s sufferings. But to universalize this feeling so that we personally think we bear the whole world in our grasp is, as Aristotle implied, to claim a divine power. This vague universalism is what most interferes with seeing an actual neighbor, or a real way to help real people, with names and institutions that facilitate this endeavor.

Mitchell argues that “loyalty and obligation” are virtues of real people for real people (60). With the rise of secular individualism, people are more evaluated in terms of money, and less with personal service. This change impinges on the concepts of the place of begetting and family in society. It is in the family that we find an orientation to the future of real people, and not just to self, and abstractions. In societies with strong familial and tribal roots, the public order is not so important. “When social equality comes to prevail, each man thinks of himself as standing alone, it is true; but when he las lost his ties to his extended family, the public is bound to loom large” (69). In other words, de-linked man, with no natural connections to others, ends up dependent on the state which is only too happy to have him, more or less, as Hobbes predicted.

 

V.
Mitchell’s understanding of the student mind is accurate: “Doubtful that anyone can really teach them anything that they have not discovered by their own lights, my students are ill-disposed to entertain the finally unprovable wager that all great philosophers make concerning the world, its wellsprings, and how we must, accordingly, live…” The only thing that can change this is for students to become “convinced that the questions that philosophers ask are already their own questions” (71). This “seeing” that things they do not know, but ought to know, usually comes home to students if they are fortunate to read under the guidance of a good teacher like Mitchell. Finally, they encounter the works in which what they actually are looking for, and need to know, is presented. In this sense, much of modern university education is worthless when it comes to what is most important to each human being.

“Almost everywhere we look, the hard lessons of failure are ruled out” (93). Mitchell’s awareness that failure is a part of life to be faced, and not covered over, is refreshing. Down-playing every risk, and eliminating every suffering ill, prepares human beings for what life is, a vale of tears. Actually the theme of failure, because of things like bankruptcy and market failures, leads to the difference between free markets, and socialist concepts of the state and economy. Mitchell’s reflections on economics (95-134) are well worth reflection. Here, Mitchell discusses the market, price, improvement, excessive profit, economic justice, the federal government, property, income inequality, and commerce. This is a remarkably good discussion of these, sometimes confusing, topics.

“Exhausted, indeed frightened, by the prospect of a future the contours of which they can, at best, dimly intimate, many of them (students) want to believe that they have arrived at the end of history, at which point the task that remains is to redistribute wealth so that ‘social justice’ can be achieved” (127-28). This attitude, no doubt, which makes working to produce wealth a much more important issue, seems useless. Having little vision of a “non-Eden” future in this finite world, the logical alternative is to impose social justice on everyone with the scarce resources that result from thinking primarily about mal-distribution. That this approach is a formula for the impoverishment of the whole world is seldom considered.

 

VI.
Mitchell thoroughly understands Islam and its customs. He explains the reason why Islam cannot, and will not, accept Christianity. He is not under the liberal illusion that this confident religion is just another malleable sect. Islam specifically denies the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Its veneration of Christ and Mary is specifically premised on the denial that Christ was true God. He was just a pious witness. Mary did not bear the Son of God, but she was a very nice lady. Mitchell notes that almost all Christian students today hold something similar: “Like so many students in America, they (his students) look to Christ because he is a teacher and an example…. He is, in short, a really good man who teaches us how to be moral, to turn the other cheek, and above all that we should take care of the poor” (144). This view is also essentially, as Benedict said in the Regensburg Lecture, that was the result of “dehellinization” wherein Christ ceases to be God, but is only a good man.

Mitchell ends the book with a penetrating analysis of foreign policy and military power, of a realism that follows from a proper understanding of the Fall of Man, of a broken world whose redemption is not solely in man’s own hands. He does not hold out much hope that the Islamic states will ever accept the sort of limited democracy that Tocqueville spoke of. Probably the best they can have is a form of limited monarchy. He touches on the need of a critical edition of the Qur’an. He is aware that ultimately the problems with the Qur’an are in the text itself. The Qur’an is not really like the Bible. It is closer to being a living “word” of God identified with Allah. Thus, it is not something that can be changed without blasphemy. This is exactly how much of Islam treats any critique of it. Under the nation-state, of which Mitchell is an advocate, Islam is “disembodied”. It does not accept the distinction of religion and politics, or the rule of political officials, as a final authority.

“I venture that Muslim societies of the Middle East will not find their bearings,” Mitchell writes, “unless a juridical tradition able to work within the confines of the state sovereignty arises from the ashes, or until, in some distant century, Islam as a comprehensive doctrine, as a way of life, is definitely repudiated” (171). The one thing that is almost never talked of, anticipating its futility, is the “conversion” of Islam. What remains are “dialogues” that, for the most part, serve the Islamic cause. But if the world is to live in peace, conversion may be the one thing necessary.

This book about the Islamic world, about the inadequacy of our university systems, possesses also an acute understanding of Christianity. Mitchell spends a good deal of time explaining to Muslim and to Christian students what Christianity is, as well as what Islam is. He is constantly aware of how little the students know, or want to know, of either. He has an uncanny knack of making things clear, especially theological things. “If there are no gods, it is impossible to speak of evil as a problem. If there are no gods, there will be talk of cause and effect in the physical world, and, for us, there will be talk about pleasure and pain—or to language befitting of the democratic age, about experiences that are ‘positive’ or ‘negative’” (138-39). This book is a lesson in what happens when there are gods. It is, as I said, a remarkable book. Once we break the “spell of Eden” in our souls, we can begin to see things as they are. Judging by Mitchell’s analysis, we have a long way to go.

  1. Joshua Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2013), 138.
  2. Ibid, 128-29.
  3. James V. Schall, The Modern Age (South Bend, In.: St. Augustine’s Press 2011).
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ, is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, is retired, and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California.

Comments

  1. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    I, a retired medievalist after a fashion, am moved to offer a reply to such a well-wrought volume
    and such a wholly pertinent review of same. The words are drawn from one of my most beloved instructors in life and literature, Geoffrey Chaucer:

    “But if those old books were to vanish, /
    We would lose the key of remembrance.”

    We pray that You may forbid that, Almighty God, in your mercy!

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*